A catch-up blog

My friend Martha emailed me last week. ‘Is everything alright?’ she asked. My blog posts had dried up and Martha was concerned about our welfare. I sent her a quick and all too short response, assuring her that everything is fine with us, but I have been so busy, I simply haven’t had time to write any new blogs. This is unbelievably frustrating for me. Events have come and gone, time has passed and I’ve lost the moment and the momentum to write.

We have had some wonderful times – the school carnaval and the village carnaval; the Contraband Festival that linked the two villages with a temporary footbridge across the river; Lily’s birthday, and the birthday parties of classmates; a friend’s party downriver.

We’ve also had more trying times – a night in accident and emergency in Huelva when Lily had concussion; Carina dragging her anchor in high winds (twice) when we weren’t aboard and quick evasive action was required; Julian suddenly finding himself out of work, leaving us wondering about our short and medium future plans. Thankfully, all those problems have resolved themselves and I’m sleeping more easily again!

Looking after our friend’s house, dog and land continues to be a mostly enjoyable, if time-consuming, endeavour. Our multiple daily journeys to and from the village, on foot or by dinghy, take time and, as the days grow longer, sunnier and hotter, land maintenance increases, with fruit trees and vegetable patch needing irrigation and fast-growing canes and brambles needing to be cut back.

And on top of it all, my editing work is flooding in. It’s a great job, that I thoroughly enjoy, but at the end of a day sitting in front of the laptop editing other people’s work, the last thing I want to do is any writing of my own!

However, despite not having time to write about all we’ve been getting up to, I have kept a photo record of it all. So, here, by way of my camera and smart phone, is our last month…

IMG_20170222_171435

My two little owls at school Carnaval. Thank you to Rika aboard yacht Brillig for sewing the masks. Without Rika I would have had to pull an all-nighter to have the costumes ready in time!

DSCI0213

Lily and Katie Owl, with their Owl classmates Luisa and Miguel and Luisa’s baby Owl sister, Carla. Cuties xxxxxx

IMG_20170225_190826

A few days later it was the always colourful Sanlucar village Carnaval.

IMG_20170225_173340

This time we were pirates, princesses and…erm…a bumble bee.

IMG_20170225_175003

The best fancy dress was surely the family that collectively dressed as a roller coaster!

IMG_20170309_064754

After our night in Accident and Emergency in a Huelva hospital, Lily and I were tired, relieved and ready for breakfast, as we waited for Julian to come pick us up. Thank you to Martin for driving us to Huelva, to Sue and Robin for loaning us their car to get home again, to Emma and Paul for having Katie for the night, for packing a bag of food to keep me going, and for loaning us warm clothes for the night!

IMG_20170312_145238

Name that yachtie!! A much needed relaxing lunch and bottle of wine with our good friends Rosa and Phil, after rescuing Carina when she drifted downriver.

IMG_20170322_090904

To commemorate the smuggling culture between Spain and Portugal, the two villages held a fantastic joint festival, and were joined together by a footbridge. The construction of the bridge was a fascination for many of us!

DSCI0241

The official opening of the bridge, with mayors and officials from both sides meeting in the middle of the river.

DSCI0248

Natually, we took every opportunity to enjoy the novelty of walking across the river!

DSCI0260

And, after walking the river, it was supper time.

DSCI0261

For Lily’s 8th birthday, we hired the village hall and showed the movie ‘Big Hero 6’

DSCI0266

Followed, of course, by party food and cake (beetroot-chocolate cake topped with fresh strawberries). Thank you to Sawa and Rose-marie for all their help at the party! You both rock!!

DSCI0280

The day after Lily’s party we were downriver for a party hosted by our lovely friends Claire and Ed. It seemed like every foreigner on the river was there. Thanks for a lovely time, and apologies for the mayhem we caused!!

DSCI0281

And where there are extranjeros, there’s good music!

DSCI0293

Lily, Katie, Lola and Isla (and mum Emma) looking beautiful in the spring sunshine.

IMG_20170323_142319

Meanwhile, life goes on on the land…the girls walking home from school.

IMG_20170306_143602

Hanging out with their new friends Lupin and Buster.

IMG_20170317_180513

Engaging in a touch of spring cleaning.

DSCI0231

Making strange drink concoctions with their friend Gwendolyn.

IMG_20170226_132858

Dressing up Chester.

DSCI0225

And now and again….just now and again….I sit on the dock and soak up this wonderful place.

Wildlife haven

At dusk on Saturday evening the first badger arrived. Confident, showing little caution, it trotted up the garden to the double patio doors. Steve had thrown a mix of apples, dry dog food and bread on the patio, and the badger started to eat. Exhibiting far more caution than the badger, the girls and I moved from the sofa where we’d been sitting, inching our way closer to the patio doors, hoping we wouldn’t scare the badger away. We were halfway across the living room when another badger arrived. The two seemed oblivious to us and we sat on the floor, our faces pressed against the glass doors, the badgers less than metre away.

IMG_20160713_214102

They were smaller than I thought they would be. But then, I had only ever seen one live badger before – a brief glimpse late one night about seven years ago, when I caught a foraging badger in the headlights of my car as I turned into our driveway in Cambridgeshire. Apart from that one brief encounter, I had only ever seen live badgers on television and dead ones on the side of the road or stuffed and mounted.

Lily’s and Katie’s granddad and I tried to impress on the girls what a rare and special experience this was. While I had seen one live badger in 43 years, Barry had never seen one in 68 years. ‘Remember this moment’, we told the girls. ‘You might never have this privilege again’.

IMG_20160713_214759

By the end of that first evening we counted four individuals, identifiable by their differences in size and markings. One, a rather scruffy looking soul, was missing both ears and had a scratch on this nose; another was bigger than all the others.

Up close the black stripes from their eyes back over the tops of their heads are in sharp contrast to their otherwise grey and white bodies. They have terrible eyesight and even when looking straight at us humans on the other side of the glass, I could tell by their eyes that they couldn’t really see us. They were quick to respond to sound though, their long heads rising frequently from the food to look around at the slightest sound. They had very long nails on their feet, which they use to dig their setts. We sat there, listening to them munching on the food, and I felt awed and privileged to be there.

This was the first night of our week long holiday in rural Pembrokeshire, in south Wales. I had booked this particular house because there was so little else available and because it boasted badgers at dusk in the garden. Little did we realise what a wildlife haven it would be.

IMG_20160713_222920

The next morning, as I made my first cup of tea, my father-in-law came in from the garden and urged me to come outside. He wanted to show me something. He had taken his cup of tea and his pipe to a secluded area of the garden with wooden garden furniture. Walking through the gap he’d come upon a huge pheasant standing on the table. The pheasant was unmoved by Barry’s presence, and continued standing on the table even when the two of us came close.

That evening, after Barry and Katie had gone to bed, Lily and I sat watching television. There were two badgers on the patio and I caught a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. A fox. Over the next four nights I watched, transfixed, as the fox and badgers vied for the food on the patio. There were five badgers in all, and some evenings all five were together on the patio. The fox, far more skittish, and with better eyesight than the badgers, was more wary of movement inside the house. Sitting quietly close to the patio doors, I waited each evening for the fox to come trotting up the garden. Although the badgers came at dusk, the fox waited until darkness had fallen. If there were no badgers around, the fox came directly to the food. Sure enough, a badger or two would arrive and chase the fox away, and over the next hour or more the fox would come, the badgers would chase it away, the fox would come again. I thoroughly enjoyed this soap opera in the back garden.

IMG_20160716_213721

All day we enjoyed rabbits on the lawns, and each day followed the progress of a family of sparrows nesting in the eaves of the house, the parents bringing food to their noisy and large chicks. We hoped they would fledge while we were there, but they probably preferred the cosiness of their nest to the drizzly conditions of south Wales.

Steve and Serena, the owners of Swallows Rest Cottage, where we stayed for the week, have made their property a haven for wildlife. An acre and a half of their garden is a wildflower meadow, alive with butterflies and bees, crisscrossed with the tracks of the many animals that move through it each day and night. No plastic eaves for them – their wooden eaves are friendly to nesting birds, and the hedgerows all around their property are home to all sorts of wildlife. Each evening they put out a little food, thus attracting two badger setts and some young foxes. They take a neighbourly attitude towards the wildlife in their garden – welcoming it, making it feel at home, helping it out and not infringing on the way it lives its life.

A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

My surreal cosmopolitan life!

Last week I received an email from the press office at Exeter University. I’m still an honorary research fellow at the Geography Department there, and the press office had received a request from The Conversation asking for someone to comment on a recent controversy about polar bear trophy hunting. I have written numerous academic and popular articles* about polar bear hunting over the years, as this is the focus of much of my anthropological research in the Canadian Arctic, so the press office asked if I could write a 600-800 word response to this particular polar bear news story.

I duly wrote the article, working directly with the environmental editor of The Conversation and the article was published on Wednesday morning. It got a good reaction, was widely read and shared on social media and I got mostly positive comments for the approach I had taken.

So, if an Irish woman living on the Spanish-Portuguese border writing about polar bear hunting in the Canadian Arctic isn’t weird enough, the surreal nature of my cosmopolitan life really hit home on Friday afternoon.

There I was, sitting in a bar in Sanlúcar, having a drink with British, Northern Irish and Brazilian friends, while my husband was at work in Portugal and my daughters were off watching a movie with their Spanish friends.

I resisted having a third glass of wine and I’m glad I did. When my friends left, I stayed on at the bar, ordered a Coke and turned on my laptop to check my emails. I had a Facebook message from my friend and Inuk sister, who is a journalist working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) North in Iqaluit, Nunavut. She had read my polar bear article and asked if she could interview me for the evening news. I said I’d have to see, and I’d get back to her in half an hour.

You see, my thirteen year old Nokia mobile phone is not up to receiving phone calls from Canada or anywhere else outside of Europe and the Skype connection at CBC in Iqaluit isn’t reliable. How could we do this? And then inspiration struck. I would go in search of my Dutch friends, who live in a house with a land line.

I paid for my Coke and set off up through Sanlúcar, serendipitously bumping into one of my Dutch friends on the way. He walked me back to his house and set me up with his phone and Wifi; I turned on my laptop, sent a message containing the phone number and awaited a phone call from Iqaluit.

Five minutes later I find myself, an Irish woman in a Dutch house in a Spanish village, on the phone to my Inuk sister in Nunavut, who is interviewing me about my thoughts on polar bear hunting for a television and radio station which focuses on Inuit and other indigenous Arctic Canada news  !

I may own a thirteen year old phone, but I think I’ve become hyper-globalised!!

*My academic articles are available on request via the blog’s Contact page, and my popular articles can be found in the Publications page of this blog.

Easter visitors

A couple of mornings ago Lily called to me from the cockpit. ‘Come up quick’, she yelled. I was in the middle of making breakfast, but the urgency of her call made me stop was I was doing. Excitedly, she pointed to the water, where a mother duck was busy shepherding her seven ducklings on their very first paddle in the river. What a moment. Seven tiny balls of fuzzy perfection, their little legs and feet paddling for all they were worth. When they put on a burst of speed they were so light they actually walked on the water momentarily. We have been besotted ever since.

DSCI0471

Carina has been alongside the Sanlúcar pontoon for over a week now and we are regularly visited by the many mallards that live nearby. They are a constant feature of village life. Groups of ducks waddle through the streets, knowing which houses to stop outside where they are sure of a snack from the Spanish grandmother living inside. A couple of weeks ago I went to the bakery and asked the baker for the loaf of bread sitting on the counter. He wouldn’t sell it to me. It was yesterday’s bread, he said, and he was saving it for the ducks!

DSCI0469

The arrival of these seven ducklings is a delight. But they are also causing me maternal worry. I counted them the first morning – seven. And every time I see them I count them again, to make sure all seven are still there. A big seagull appeared on the river a few days ago and I’m worried about the duckies.

DSCI0477

The ducklings aren’t the only avian visitors we’ve had recently. I was in the forward cabin a week ago. The hatch was open and I could hear the most delightful trilling birdsong coming from the fore deck. Quietly I peeked out the hatch and saw a swallow sitting on our guard rail. It was joined by its mate, and for a couple of days, while we moored in the middle of the river, the two were regular visitors to Carina’s fore deck.

DSCI0397

DSCI0399

There have been attempts at nest building aboard Carina too. One day, while the girls were at school, I was sitting quietly working on my laptop in the saloon. I guess our visitors thought no-one was home. I stopped what I was doing and watched as a pair of what I think were house sparrows began investigating the inside of the sail cover on the main mast boom. I had no choice but to shoo them away. I couldn’t have them build a nest and lay eggs, only to be made homeless with any disturbance of the sail cover. It doesn’t stop sparrows coming to visit, however, and every day they alight on our guard rails, cockpit and rigging, chirp-chirruping for all they’re worth.

DSCI0403

What a delightful and joyful sign that spring is here.

Buzzy bees

I gaze through the glass, mesmerized by the activity inside. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of bees, all moving – the proverbial hive of activity. ‘What’s going on there?’ I ask the tall, grey-haired gentleman beside me, pointing to one bee laboriously carrying its comrade against the force of gravity, up through the hive. ‘It’s removing a dead one’, the man tells me. He explains that fastidious bees carry the dead from the hive and he shows me the drawer that he clears of dead bees on a regular basis.

This is an ingenious set-up giving people like me a rare glimpse into the lives of bees. The hive is encased between two panes of glass and the bees have access to the outside world through a long narrow drainpipe. But because of the pipe, the dead cannot be completely removed by other bees alone, so the bee-keeper lends a hand by collecting them in the little bee-cemetery and removing them regularly.

The woman in the Glasshouse is worried about the bees, but the bee-keeper assures her they’re looking good. There was an unfortunate die-off last year and she’s hoping the same won’t happen again. But the bee-keeper tells her if he sees any sign of trouble he will capture the queen, creating a swarm and the start of a new healthy colony.

‘How do you know which one is the queen?’ I ask, expecting him to say that she’s bigger. Turns out she’s not noticeably bigger. She has a white mark on her back. But it is the behaviour of the other bees around her that distinguishes her from everyone else. The others clear a path around her, don’t get in her way. I reminded me of the way everyone maintains a respectful space around Usain Bolt! We try to find the queen, our heads close together, our noses pressed to the glass. I think I see her, but I’m not sure.

It seems bees are everywhere these days. And they’re not. The more they disappear from the world the more they are part of the zeitgeist. One of the libraries I visit has an entire bee section, with books such as A world without bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, about one of the many crises currently faced by honey bees, and Sean Borodale’s moving book of bee-keeping poetry, Bee Journal.

There seem to be a profusion of bee-related activities in the places we’ve been visiting all summer – libraries, museums, art galleries all devoting space and energy to educating people about bees, nurturing children’s enthusiasm for bees, providing information about how to revive tired bees. There are wildlife organisations and activitists devoted to and campaigning for the protection of bees, television programmes focusing on the importance of bees and the threats they face, and artists inspired by bees. Even Sainsbury’s, the big supermarket chain, is singing the praises of bees, encouraging customers to install bee hotels in their gardens to encourage the solitary bees so necessary to the pollination of garden plants.

Wandering around rural Spain and Portugal and suburban England this summer I could have been forgiven for thinking that bees are doing just fine. On the hillsides along the Rio Guadiana the buzzing of bees fills the air, the land is awash with wild flowers, and beehives pepper the slopes. In the English Midlands, the constant buzz of bees around lavender and jasmine, honeysuckle and clover fills the air. The sight of fat round fuzzy bumblebees (there are 13 different species of bumblebee and 260 species of solitary bee in the UK alone!) flying from clover to clover always causes me to stop and smile.

But the reality is bees are in serious trouble. And because bees are in trouble, we are in trouble. One-third of everything we eat is pollinated by honeybees.

Do you eat any of the following foods? Kiwi, onion, celery, mustard, broccoli, rapeseed, cauliflower, cabbage, anything in the pepper family, coffee, coconut, anything in the melon family, tangerine, coriander, cucumber, pumpkin, lemon, lime, carrot, oil palm, fig, strawberry, sunflower, apple, mango, alfalfa, avocado, most beans, cherries, almonds, peaches and related fruits, pears, blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries, blackberries, sesame, aubergines, cocoa (i.e. chocolate), blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, grapes. Yes, they all rely, to a medium or major extent, on pollination by bees. And do you wear clothes made from cotton or linen (flax)? They too are pollinated by bees. So, without bees, or with much reduced bee populations, many of the foods we eat and clothes we wear cannot be produced.

There has been a sharp decline in bee populations over the past decade. In some instances bee numbers have declined by more than 40%. Colonies are collapsing, queens are dying, foraging behaviour is changing. Mass deaths are related to stress and disease. One of the biggest problem facing bees comes from neonicotinoid pesticides, used on arable crops and, in some cases, on household gardens. A ban on their use in the UK was recently lifted despite expert scientific evidence supporting a continued ban. Bee numbers have gone into spiralling decline, linked to these pesticides. Bees are also threatened by loss of habitat as meadows and wild flowers are displaced by monoculture and as home owners decorate their gardens with non-native plant species incompatible with the feeding habits of local bees. And a warming climate has made bees more susceptible to parasites. In combination, that’s a lot of stress for such complex creatures.

All my life I’ve been interested in big animals – dogs, polar bears, whales, elephants. But this summer I’ve developed a great respect for and awe of bees. And with that comes a great concern that these magnificent animals, with their fascinating life cycles, means of communication and sensory perception are in deep deep trouble. And if being awestruck with wonder at their very existence is not enough (although it should be), then we need to remember that our survival depends on their survival.

Forty years ago we were called upon to Save the Whale. The whale zeitgeist – the books, the films, the love poetry to whales – brought about a sea change of action. Today, many whale species are recovering from the ravages of 150 years of commercial whaling, with some sub-populations being removed or down-graded on the IUCN Red List. Perhaps the current bee zeitgeist will lead to a similar upwelling of action, that our growing awareness of the importance and wonder of bees will help us to open our eyes, change our habits and give these more intriguing of creatures a chance to survive.

The Royal Horticultural Society has a useful information page, with ideas what we can all do to nurture healthy bee populations.

The wild city

More than a year of living aboard our boat and we’re predisposed to seek out the wild side of the city. I’m not talking about clubs and bars, but caterpillars and blackbirds. Julian’s and my curiosity about the world around us has rubbed off on Lily and Katie, and we all get very excited about the wildlife we encounter – everything from megafauna in the shape of orcas and dolphins to tiny ants marching away with our dropped crumbs. We’re just as excited about finding animal signs – the muddy footprints of an otter on the riverbank, the discarded shell of a growing crab, an abandoned bird’s nest.

Back in England for the summer, we find ourselves in Midlands suburbia where, despite the tarmac-ing and bricking over some gardens to create extra car parking space and to brighten up gardens with plants that are hostile or unwelcoming to British wildlife, there are signs aplenty of nature in the city.

IMG_20150528_162133

People looking through their front windows must wonder at the sight of a woman and two little girls, pointing excitedly at a plant or a brick wall, or staring intently at a tree trunk. You see, we’re finding exciting, amazing wild life everywhere we go in the city and the little creatures we find are no less exciting than the dolphins and loggerhead turtles we’ve encountered farther afield.

Grandma’s small back garden is home to frogs, newts and ants. The ants, in turn, attract a vivid green woodpecker. A squirrel also visits the garden, scuttling along the wooden fence and jumping into the tree branches at the end of the garden. One day Lily spotted an unusual bird in Grandma’s garden and when she described it to Granddad he immediately identified it as an ouzel (and confirmed his guess by checking his bird book). From Grandma’s window we regularly see wood pigeons, magpies and blackbirds and Lily’s been using the binoculars to take a closer look.

Grand-dad’s garden hosts wood pigeons, collared doves and sparrows. A few days ago Lily and Katie excitedly called me out to see what they thought was a butterfly. It was a species none of us had ever seen before, vivid red with black edging. I suspected it was a moth rather than a butterfly and, later that day, while visiting Ryton Country Park, I spoke to a lepidopterist who confirmed it was a cinabar moth. This species is on the decline as people eradicate from their gardens the ragwort upon which the caterpillars feed. Grand-dad has plenty of ragwort in his garden!

IMG_20150528_161722

Alone, with the girls or with my mother-in-law, I take long walks around suburban and urban Leamington Spa. If you pay attention, you see that life abounds. On three separate occasions we have found the egg shells of hatched wood pigeons. The girls are delighted with their finds, and treasure them like priceless diamonds (until they inevitably get smashed by being treasured a little too much!). There are robins and thrushes, bluebells and foxgloves, bumblebees and spiders carving out their own niches in this suburban landscape.

One day, as Lily and I walked into town, we began to notice a pattern to the activities of bumblebees. Certain gardens and patches of grass were abuzz with lively bees, while others were empty. The bees were attracted to clover covered lawns and to the flowers of certain plants. We don’t know much about the likes and loves of bumblebees, so it’s time to carry out some research and try to learn more.

We’ve been watching the behaviour of a pair of blackbirds on a piece of scrubland near a busy road in Coventry. We suspect they have a nest and each day we walk past we look around for fledglings. So far, we’ve only seen the busy parents.

We’ve been spending a lot of time in parks and gardens managed by local authorities, and these are wonderful places to get up close to ducks, geese, water hens and squirrels. But there is something even more special about encountering animals in gardens, hedgerows and on the sides of suburban streets. Even in places seemingly devoid of nature, life finds a way and carries on.

Early morning stroll

I set my alarm for 6.20am. At 5.30 I wake to the familiar sight of Katie, pillow tucked under one arm, Monster Rabbit tucked under the other. No point sending her back to her own bed now, so I move over and she climbs in between Julian and me. She’s cold, from having kicked her own covers off, so I wrap myself around her and snuggle her close. I can’t get back to sleep, so I lie there, listening to the riotous birdsong coming from the banks of the river. When 6.20 comes round I am ready to get up.

I climb over Katie, careful not to wake her, and quickly get dressed. Julian gets up too, pours me a bowl of cornflakes and makes me a cup of tea. I pack my backpack with water bottle, notebook and pencil. At 6.45 I am ready. I climb down into the dinghy and motor the 300 metres to Sanlucar, tie up on the pontoon and fill my water bottle from the public tap.

I have planned a three-hour walk on the Spanish side of the river – one and a half hours north, one and a half hours back south. I aim to be back in the village by 10am, before the energy-sapping heat of the middle of the day.

At first the path follows the river, flat and tree-lined, a steep fall away to the river a hundred metres below to my left, steep grey rock face rising up to my right. I stop at a break in the trees, from where I can see the six boats at anchor in a bend in the river. The river is moving fast with the ebb current, trailing around the boats, bamboo and tree branches and other debris entangled in anchor chains and surrounding the bows. It is my first time to stop and I am startled by the stillness. There is no sound of human life here – no car-filled road in the distance, no airplane flying overhead. My senses are consumed by birdsong, the light, bright early morning voices of a multitude of birds.

Soon I pass a house where a big lumbering dog lazily barks at me. Orange trees grow in the garden and vines form a shady pergola on two sides of the white washed house. The house has no road access, but a path leads down to a small pontoon, where a small white boat is docked.

The path in places is over the bedrock and I scramble along, energised and breathing deeply. I come to a second house, protected by a thick wall of orange-blossomed cactus, with a white washed well, orange and olive groves and a collection of fig trees. Beyond this house I cross a small stream and immediately the land changes.

The path has veered away from the river and I walk among olive groves set in meadows of bright wild flowers. The scent and colour of the flowers and the buzzing of the bees makes me stop in my tracks. I can’t walk through this too fast. I need to absorb it.

I come to an unmarked fork in the path and I choose the path that leads down towards a dry riverbed, rather than the one that leads upwards to the top of a hill. At first this path is wide and clear, passing through more of the same enchanting olive filled meadows, but when it leads down to and along the dried river bed I wonder if I have made the wrong choice. I follow the riverbed until the path rises out of it again. But now it is less clear. I follow what I think is the path, but I have to scrabble through undergrowth and my legs get scratched by thorns and branches. I soon realise that I am on one of the many abandoned terraced hillsides, this one growing almond trees. I wonder if the path I am following has been made by humans at all, or if it is the trail of a deer or some other animal that lives in these parts. I turn around and return to the fork and take the path that leads uphill.

At the top of the hill the terrain changes again, or rather I walk up and down on a wide trail over the hills rather that around and between them. Up and down the paths goes, rounding bends, always revealing more and more hills stretching away to the distance. The bend in the river where I stopped to listen to the birdsong is now far behind me, a small living ribbon in the distance. Here the walking is easy and I stretch out my legs, increasing my speed.

The hills are terraced here, but subtly so, like old tent rings on the tundra, and you have to know what you’re looking for before you can see them. But once you’ve seen one terraced hill, you start to see them everywhere. Lines of ancient terraces gently encircle the hills with overgrown olive groves and almond groves long forsaken for more accessible groves closer to the villages and the river.

From around a bend in the path I hear the deep bark of a big dog before I see the huge sandy-coloured beast coming towards me. His head is as high as my waist. Before he reaches me I see his two companions. They are almost as big as his is and they bark too, but I can tell by their body language they mean no harm. ‘Shh’, I tell them soothingly as they crowd around me. I offer them the back of my hand, so they can have a sniff. Their owner appears, a suntanned man in his 50s, bald on top but with long grey hair almost to his shoulders. ‘Buenos dias’, I say. ‘Or good morning’, I venture, because, despite his deep tan he doesn’t look Spanish. ‘Good morning’ he replies in a rich English accent. ‘They don’t often meet anyone out here’, he says, looking towards the dogs. He seems as surprised to meet someone as his dogs are. We chat for a few minutes. He tells me he lives on a small holding near the river. He is the only person I see all morning.

I stop every so often to enjoy the birdsong. Each time I hear different songs. Part of me wants to know more – which species of birds make these beautiful songs. But mostly I don’t want to know, content with closing my eyes and bathing in the orchestra of sound. Let them be who they are, as unknown to me as I am to them.

All too soon I find I have been walking for an hour and a half. Just to the next bend in the trail, I tell myself, and then, just to the next olive tree. But I know I have to go back. Soon the temperature will be hitting 30˚C and I don’t want to be out walking in that heat. As it is, my t-shirt is soaked underneath my backpack and the flies are starting to take pleasure in my sweat-streaked face. I turn around, retracing my steps, winding my way up and down the hills, across the wild flower and olive tree strewn meadows, past the houses, and along the river.

I reach the edge of Sanlucar just before 10am. At the bakery I buy a fresh loaf of bread still warm from the oven and at the tiny shop I buy cheese, cucumber, lettuce and fruit to bring home to Carina. I refill my water bottle at the pontoon, untie the dinghy, and head home.

Lively river

The liveliness of the Rio Guadiana is astonishing after six months of living in Almería – Europe’s most arid region. We’ve come from a baked orange coastal zone to a riparian idyll teeming with life. The gentle hills that girdle the river are lush and verdant and the river itself is alive. Fish leap from this dynamic river whose current runs furiously, changing direction every six hours with the tides 22 miles downstream. On the flood tide the river runs back upon itself and on the ebb it races down to the sea at even greater speed, carrying tree trunks, branches and innumerable bamboo stalks.
DSCI0412 - CopyThe riverbank is cacophonous with birdsong. There are blackbirds, sparrows, finches, tits, and even more species whose names I don’t know, filling the air with their orchestra of song. The house martins that nest in astonishing number in the gables of buildings in the two villages joyously flit along the river, dipping low to the water, catching insects to bring home to their babies. Egrets and herons patrol the banks, the herons flying like prehistoric pterodactyls and landing silently on the river’s edge. A pair of geese lives on the small beach at Sanlucar and there, and in Alcoutim, three species of duck, including a dozen or so big black and white and red Muscovy ducks make their home.

One day, a baby bird lands on our deck, resting mid-way across the river. Its parents fretfully call to it. One flies away in the direction of the other bank, wheels and comes back, pleading with the youngster to carry on. The other parent perches on our pulpit, pleading, begging ‘Just a little more baby, just a little more’. The little one rises up and flies off, flanked by its devoted parents. We watch, hearts in our mouths, as the baby dips closer to the river surface the farther it flies from us. We will it to make it the last tens of metres to safety. It alights on the deck of a small yacht anchored close to shore. The parents alight on the guard rails and the coaxing begins again.

DSCI0417 - CopyAt dusk, as the songbirds return in vast numbers to roost and the egrets fly upriver, the insects come out. And with them come the bats. These are bigger bats than I’ve seen in the wild before. They fly along the centre of the river, avoiding the masts of the yachts at anchor, eating their fill of insects.

At Sanlucar and Alcoutim, the house martins are a joy to behold. The air is filled with the sight and sound of parents, racing to and from their nests. Every house, every eave is festooned with nests and the piercing songs of adults is accompanied by their swift swooping as they seem to know no fear, diving and banking and loop-the-looping like cocky fighter pilots.

The bleating of small herds of goats and sheep compete with birdsong, the sounds of the former accompanied by the ringing bell around the neck of the lead animal. These ovines, black, brown, tan and white, spend their days resting under olive trees, shaded from the hot sun.

IMG_20150511_094909There are other animals too, no less interesting for their lack of size or cuteness. One morning a huge green grasshopper sits like a bowsprit on the prow of the dinghy as I motor ashore. Another day, we come across a small snake and stand back while it crosses our path. And then there is a larger snake, about four feet long, on the side of the road, nothing left of it but its transparent patterned skin, its long long back bone, and hundreds of tiny delicate ribs not much bigger than nail clippings. There are little green lizards, half way up walls in the villages, scuttling among the undergrowth and across paths farther out.

And the ants. Big ants, little ants, always busy busy ants. Lily stops me every few minutes to watch a tiny ant carrying a giant leaf or petal. Once, when we have a picnic, someone drops a piece of cheese from a sandwich and a platoon of ants marches up and carries it away, manoeuvring around weeds and grasses, and dragging it up and under the boardwalk to their garrison below.

Food grows in rude abundance here. Not just in the cultivated fields of potatoes and cabbages and other vegetables, and in the groves of oranges, lemons, almonds and olives that grow along the riverbank and far up into the hills. There is wild food in abundance. Almond, olive and orange trees grow wild, or in old abandoned groves. There is a profusion of wild fig trees, as well as pomegranate and kumquat trees. The fig trees are heavy with not-yet ripe fruit and the kumquats are already juicy and delicious. I’ve been assured that wild vines spiral up the trunks of eucalyptus trees and great bunches of grapes can be plucked from the eucalypts later in the summer. Mint, fennel and rosemary grow wild and in abundance, as do spinach, alexanders and wild carrot. And in the river there are fresh water mussels and clams. This is a forager’s paradise.

DSCI0423 - CopyOn the trails that wind through the hills and along the riverbanks the profusion of wild flowers caresses the senses. The meadow-covered valleys between the gentle hillsides are riotous with colour. Pink, purple, blue, magenta, violet, yellow, orange, red and white wild flowers fill the air with their heady scent. The sight and scent of the flowers is accompanied by the steady buzz of bees feasting on the nectar. Beehives dot these hillsides, where beekeepers collaborate with bees to make honey from these flowers and to contribute to the pollination all that grows in this paradise.

DSCI0424 - CopyArriving in late April, we have missed some harvests and not yet arrived at others. But our stomachs are filled with delicious sweet oranges, we cook with oranges, lemons, rosemary and fennel, and I drink fresh mint tea every day. We pick kumquats as we walk along and we will the tens of thousands of figs and almonds to ripen soon.

Each day we discover some new wonder in this bounteous place, and I’m afraid my poor writing has barely captured the richness of life on the river.

Wildlife bonanza

We set sail from Almerimar shortly before 9am on Sunday. We were forecast easterly winds, light at first but getting stronger through the day. The first half of the day was overcast and chilly, and the girls and I piled on the layers to keep warm.

Last year common dolphins were our regular companions as we sailed south from Plymouth to the Mediterranean. Common dolphins are small, dark grey on top, lighter grey underneath, with a distinctive curved dorsal fin. So I was thrilled on Sunday when some bottlenose dolphins came right up beside us and rode our bow wave. I gasped when I saw the first one, so much larger than their common dolphin cousins. Bottlenose dolphins can grow to 3.4 metres – a metre more than common dolphins. They are a lighter shade of grey and their dorsal fins are bigger and less curved at the back. The dolphins that swam close to us on Sunday had ragged dorsal fins, suggesting they’ve had come close encounters with boat propellers.

A couple of hours after the bottlenose dolphins had dropped by we were joined by a few common dolphins, who looked tiny and delicate in comparison.

We were just past Adra, Julian at the helm and the girls and I sitting in the cockpit with our heads stuck in our books.
‘Flamingos! Flamingos!’ Julian yelled excitedly. I looked up from my book, thinking he’d finally lost the plot. But there, between us and the shore, flying low to the water, was a flock of shockingly pink flamingos! We watched as they flew in the opposite direction to us, never more than a couple of metres above the surface of the water. Due to their bright plumage we kept track of them far into the distance.

About six miles out from Almuñecar, Julian drew our attention to something else in the water. Swimming so close to Carina that I could have touched it with a boat hook, was a reddish-brown sea turtle, about 30cm long. Later, after we had settled into Marina del Este, we did some online research and we’re pretty sure it was a juvenile loggerhead turtle. Loggerheads range in colour from green to reddish-brown, they are found throughout the Mediterranean, and they have nesting sites in the south and east of the Sea. I’ve seen sea turtles a couple of times when SCUBA diving, but this was the first time for all of us to see one while sailing. Many sailors write of sea turtles bumping up against their boats, and we were thrilled to see our very first turtle from Carina’s cockpit.

Our final visitor was a bumble bee that landed on our deck about four miles from shore. It rested for a while, exploring the deck, and then went on his way.

It was a memorable day, with so much incredible wildlife visiting us. It was also a reminder of the care we need to take of our fragile ecosystems. The BBC recently reported on new research that found that the Mediterranean is an accumulating zone of plastic debris. The research found 1000 tons of plastic floating on the surface of the Mediterranean. Many animals ingest plastics, mistaking them for food, leading to slow and painful death through starvation. However, 80% of the plastic in the Mediterranean is micro-plastic, less than 5mm in length. These potentially release carcinogenic and other chemicals into the gut.

On Sunday we came close to so many spectacular animals. They were a reminder of the staggering diversity and beauty of the world around us. They were also a reminder that their continued existence hinges on us humans taking care of the world around us and not treating our seas and our atmosphere as dumping grounds for our endless waste.